England Deepen Welsh Misery

Wales 10 v 20 England

England heaped more misery on Wales with a scrappy win in Cardiff, keeping their slim title hopes alive. Similar to their victory against Italy, it was rarely pretty but ultimately effective, with England’s defence superb throughout. England’s winning margin doesn’t tell the full story of their superiority in a tense and cagey affair; Owen Farrell’s profligacy from the tee and Louis Rees-Zammit’s gift-wrapped try narrowing the margin. Pragmatism was the order of the day, but England brought a greater accuracy to everything they did, winning the kicking duel with Freddie Steward providing an aerial masterclass.

For Wales, it was a similar story to their previous two defeats, showing plenty of spirit but lacking any real quality. Hindered by their troubled build-up, which involved strike threats and protracted negotiations, Wales understandably opted for a game plan built on simplicity. There were some improvements with their discipline significantly better, but once again, their attack looked blunt and unimaginative. Sadly, there is no discernible structure on or off the pitch at the moment, and Wales repeated tactic of kicking to Freddie Steward starved them of any momentum. Even Cardiff’s famous atmosphere felt a little deflated, with little to excite or energise them.

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The match got off to a frantic start, with Toby Faletau charging down Farrell’s attempted clearance kick, the ever-dependable Steward mopping things up. It was a breathless opening five minutes, with England seeking to play at pace and tempo, matched by the intensity of Wales’s defence. Farrell got England on the board with a long-range penalty as the visitors started to gain the upper hand. Both sides were determined to get rid of any slow ball, but England shaded the early kicking battle, thanks to Steward and the accuracy of Jack Van Poortvliet’s boot. England’s back row were all making their presence felt, Lewis Ludlam felling carriers, Alex Dombrandt showcasing his deft hands, and Jack Willis achieving a turnover.

England soon had the game’s first try with a slick move off the back of a scrum. Farrell fed Max Malins with a lovely inside ball, who scorched through the hole, passing to Ollie Lawrence, who was bought down under the shadow of the posts. England shipped the ball wide quickly, with Dombrandt passing to Anthony Watson, who finished in the corner. Farrell missed the conversion, and some sloppy play from the restart allowed Leigh Halfpenny to put Wales on the board. Farrell then missed a relatively straightforward penalty, and Wales started to grow in confidence towards the end of the half, with Rees-Zammit threatening every time he touched the ball. Twice Wales entered England’s 22 and failed to come away with anything, the story of their championship. England were indebted to Lawrence and Ludlam for some fine work at the breakdown, allowing them to go into halftime with an 8-3 lead.

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England would have gone into halftime thinking they should have had a more comfortable buffer, but their lead was eradicated within a minute of the restart. Trying to launch an attack on the halfway line, Malins failed to notice Rees-Zammit in the passing lane; the Welsh wing gracefully accepted the gift and scorched free, Halfpenny’s conversion taking Wales into the lead. However, their lead didn’t last long, and England quickly hit back with a try of their own, Farrell’s decision to turn down a possible three points vindicated. England dummied the drive, with Jamie George peeling off, and after some battering from the forwards, Kyle Sinckler burrowed over under the posts. It was a crucial moment in the match; England’s score restored their lead and denied Wales an opportunity to build some momentum and confidence.

The game then descended into a kicking fest, with neither side showing any real inclination to play. Given their lead, England’s pragmatism was slightly understandable, and Wales rarely came close to troubling them, with Freddie Steward dominating the aerial battle. Wales seemed content to wait for England to make a mistake, devoid of the confidence to force the play, but England’s defence and discipline were excellent. However, England’s pragmatism kept Wales in the game, with Henry Slade kicking away a potential 3v2 after a crucial steal from Justin Tipuric had denied them minutes before. England upped the tempo in the last ten minutes, and after another poor box kick allowed them to attack, Ollie Lawrence dotted down in the corner. Farrell again missed the conversion, but England saw out the game comfortably, Wales’s attack lacking any penetration.

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It represented a job well done for England, providing Steve Borthwick with his first win on the road as England coach. Trips to Cardiff always represent a daunting prospect, and despite the disarray surrounding Welsh rugby, Borthwick would have left the Welsh capital feeling pleased. England looked in control throughout, and Kevin Sinfield would have been especially enthused with the defensive effort. Freddie Steward underlined his status as the world’s best full-back under the high ball, while Ollie Lawrence produced another excellent performance, and Anthony Watson marked his return to the side with a neatly finished try. England will need to improve to stand a chance of beating France and Ireland, with their attack still lacking some sharpness and their decision-making needing greater clarity around the opposition 22. Despite his typically combative performance defensively, Owen Farrell’s goal-kicking will also be a concern. Saturday represented another stepping stone for Borthwick’s side, but he warned his side, “we’ve got to accelerate”, with bigger tests ahead.

After a difficult and mentally taxing week, you can’t fault the efforts of the Welsh players, but the same issues are repeatedly hampering them. Owen Williams, handed the opportunity at fly-half, failed to ignite his backline, and Wales must do more to involve the likes of Rees-Zammit and Mason Grady. There is no discernible structure to the Welsh attack, with a lack of options for the ball player, resulting in one-off runners wading into contact, meat and drink for any decent defence. Wales have some attacking talent but need to be bolder; even within a score of England, they looked hesitant to play. Three defeats represent the worst start to a Six Nations since 2007 for Wales, a year that saw them tumbling out of the group stages of the World cup. Gatland’s chopping and changing has proved fruitless so far, and with a massive game in Rome coming up, it will be interesting to see if he sticks or twists.

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